LETHBRIDGE -- The Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) team is reminding parents to be aware of what their kids are up to online as part of Safer Internet Day.

Held annually in February, it’s a day meant to promote safer and more responsible use of technology for young people around the world.

In the past year, ICE has started more than 2,100 new investigations, a record number for the group and a more than 50 per cent increase from last year.

The increase comes at a time when the majority of children across the province moved to at-home, online learning.

ICE Sgt. Kerry Shima believes this is no coincidence and that many criminals have used the increased screen time to prey on young people.

“These predators are simply gathering more information and ultimately gaining the trust of our victims who, in the end, are tricked into sending pictures of themselves or videos of themselves,” said Shima.

In 2020, ICE made 127 arrests and 399 charges were laid province-wide.

To combat this surge, the unit is calling on the parents for help.

“Policing the internet is an impossible task,” said Shima.

“By the time our unit gets involved, the offence has already happened and that’s why we’re trying to get parents to play a more proactive role in protecting their children.”

Some tips for safeguarding your family against unwanted interactions with strangers online include:

  • Teaching your child to check with you before chatting/texting with anyone;
  • Explaining to your child that if someone asks them to chat/text, they should come tell you or another safe adult about it right away;
  • Reinforce the idea that not everyone is who they say they are online;
  • Make sure your child knows that if they come across something or someone online that makes them feel uncomfortable, they can tell you without fear of getting in trouble or losing online privileges, and;
  • Explain that if someone asks them something that seems “weird” to stop chatting with the person and share what happened with you.

According to Jesse Sadlowski, director of technology learning and innovation with the Lethbridge School Division, parents should also keep an eye out for signs of any unusual behavior.

“Just knowing who your child is and what their typical behavior is and reflecting on how they change when they’re using the device is definitely something to look out for," said Sadlowski.

It’s also a good idea to use parental guidance apps or intelligent routers to monitor the internet usage.

With new social media sites and fads popping up each day, it’s a good idea to stay up to date.

“I think for a lot of us, as parents, we get out of touch pretty quick about what’s out there when it comes to the sites that our kids are going to,” said Kristine Cassie, CEO of Chinook Sexual Assault Centre in Lethbridge.

“Although you may trust your child, and by all means trust them, they still need to be monitored. You still need to give them guidance around what they can and can’t have access to.”

As scary as it may seem at times, Cassie made a point of saying that this is all strictly precautionary.

Anyone with information about online child exploitation is encouraged to contact their local police or go to cybertip.ca.

For more information on protecting children, visit The Canadian Centre for Child Protection website.